Book Review: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing


Before reading The Golden Notebook I had read two other novels by Doris Lessing. The Summer Before The Dark I really enjoyed. I also enjoyed The Fifth Child, and it was so disturbing. But I felt like I hadn’t really read Lessing yet–The Golden Notebook is the only Lessing title people seem to know. And by saying that people know the title, I mean very literally that, people know the title. Hard to find someone that has actually read the book. And of course Lessing’s 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature means that legions more know the title but not the book. So I felt I had a mission. Kind of like I did with that other, much thicker, door stop I read this year War and Peace. I read it because it was there. And because one can’t claim to know the author until the magnum opus is read. And because I narcissistically wanted to be able to say, “oh yes, I’ve read that.”

And like War and Peace, The Golden Notebook was at times brilliant, and enthralling, and well, at times, a bit of a slog. I had also read about 200 pages of this 635-page book when I picked up the 1358-page War and Peace. So I think I first started The Golden Notebook back in September and have read eleven other books since then. Needless to say my reading experience suffered somewhat from such a long, drawn out read. The good thing is that there were so many things that made me stop and think along the way, that I put post-it notes through the book as I read. So now as I crack open the early chapters to see what I was thinking about months ago, I hope there is adequate fodder for a decent review.

To sum up the story (and the whole notebook thingy). Anna Wulf is keeping four notebooks. A black one where she writes about her experiences in Africa. A red one in which she writes about her political life as a member of the Communist Party in Britain. A yellow one that contains a novel she is writing. And a blue one in which she keeps her diary.  And then at the end she chucks all those aside and writes a golden notebook where she decides to tie it all together. (I think this may be the source of the title…)

I know there are bloggers out there who love this book, and I can understand why. There is much to like and be fascinated by, and much that is intellectually and emotionally engaging. By the time I got to the end I found it somewhat hard to really say I liked this book, even though I know there were about at least 400 pages that I really did enjoy.

And since this “review” is starting to become as sprawling as Anna and her amazing technicolor notebooks I am going to go back and look at my post-it notes and just take the thoughts as they come.

Post-It Note #1
An entry in the black notebook which takes place in Africa during World War II, has the following interesting insight which had never occurred to me before:

There was another reason for cynicism…This war was presented to us as a crusade against the evil doctrines of Hitler, against racialsm, etc., yet the whole of that enormous land-mass, about half the total area of Africa, was conducted on precisely Hitler’s assumption–that some human beings are better than others because of their race.

Post-It Notes #2, 3, 4, and 5
I have no idea why I thought these passages were important enough to tag. At some point I felt I had something I wanted to say about these, but as I go back and read them, I have no clue what that might have been. I guess next time I should write something on those post-its.

Oh god, I have lost track of the number of post-its that make no sense to me now. I remember being struck as I read by how serious the whole Communist thing was back in the 1950s and 1960s. Not just the “menace” to the capitalist West, but the fact that the Communist Party had (and has) legs in Europe that it never really grew in the U.S. Of course we had those delightful communist witch hunts that might have put a damper on things

And there was one passage that I really wanted to write about, that I now seem to have misplaced, that occurred in the yellow notebook–the one in which the main character is writing a novel. As I read this particular passage I was struck by the levels of the narrative. It made me want to make a graphic. Without being able to find the passage I think I have it characterized correctly below:

Did you follow all of that? Doesn’t this beg a really big question? Why in the world did Lessing have to bury the story behind so many layers of narrative? I know that a big part of the story is the complexity of Anna’s life and mind and writing and everything else, but it just seemed to me after about page 500 that it could have been done differently. I know, I know the book is genius, I am being too simplistic, etc. Lessing tackles so many things, gender, sex, mental health, racism, politics, and so on. But by the end I just didn’t care. There is also much, especially in the last 200 pages that just seems way to overwrought with meaning. If my everyday life was full of the much portent I think I would need to be admitted to care.

Lovers of The Golden Notebook, don’t be too hard on me. There were many things that I got and appreciated. This is truly a book that deserves close study in any number of disciplines. But overall I got to the point where I just didn’t care. I will continue to read Lessing’s novels. They are fascinating, and so far no two have been alike. And even this one that I found frustrating had way too much that was good and interesting to give it a bad review. Although I realize it may sound like that is exactly what I am doing. Like Anna, I am a complex, confusing, person.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

  1. lyn December 5, 2010 / 1:36 am

    I know what you mean about TGN. I started it several times but just couldn't get into it. Then, one day, it just clicked & I read it & loved it. If you want to read more Lessing, you might like the Children of Violence series, based on DL's early life in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her short stories & autobiographies are also great.


  2. Paperback Reader December 5, 2010 / 9:49 am

    I started to read this a few years ago but couldn't get past the first seventy or so pages. One of these days I will start it over but I know it will be a slog (ultimately one I hope will pay off for me).


  3. LifetimeReader December 5, 2010 / 10:03 am

    I can't decide if your review scares me off completely–or leaves me so fascinated to see how Lessing could even think she could pull this off that I have to read TGN right away!


  4. Care December 5, 2010 / 10:16 am

    I've only read one Lessing: The Sweetest Dream. I'm not sure I'm the best reader of DL books. I found it quite heavy and know she tackles tough subjects.


  5. Claire (The Captive Reader) December 5, 2010 / 11:02 am

    This was the first Lessing I ever tried to read, tried being the operative word. It scared me off trying any of her other works. She's one of those authors I feel I should give a second chance but then I just have flashbacks to The Golden Notebook and all good intentions are lost.


  6. Lu @ Regular Rumination December 5, 2010 / 3:35 pm

    I also tried so hard to read this book and just couldn't get into it. Might try again one day, but for now this goes into the did not finish pile.


  7. Steph December 5, 2010 / 10:09 pm

    I would love to try to read this one day because the premise seems so cool to me and I admit to liking my fiction with a healthy dose of the “meta”about it… but I'm pretty nervous because few people I know have actually managed to read it despite the best of intentions. I think this is one I'll have to work my way up to… I have The Fifth Child, which I think is where I'll start with!


  8. Juxtabook December 8, 2010 / 6:54 am

    I have not read this either. One of the why-haven't-I list. I had a very nice copy in stock a few years ago (signed by Lessing with a letter by her inside) and wouldn't have read it as it was too good a copy for browsing but it also just never appealled. I always felt it would be a book where I thought, “Why would I care?” – so I think you have saved me the bother!


  9. Thomas at My Porch December 9, 2010 / 8:14 pm

    lyn: I am definitely going to read more Lessing. I have 2 or 3 already on my TBR pile.

    Madam: I know the feeling.

    Claire (paperback): Might be worth it, but then again, life is short.

    Lifetime: Sounds like you might be up for it.

    Care: I don't mind tough subjects, but when they get tedious, that is another story.

    Claire (captive): The other two that I have read are very different from TGN and I quite liked them.

    Lu: That seems to be a common thread.

    Steph: There is a lot of meta in this one. A feast of it.

    Juxtabook: I think we all would have cared more about it in the 60s when the issues were a lot more relevant.


  10. Stefanie December 10, 2010 / 1:34 pm

    You know, I tried to read this 15 years ago and gave up after about 100 pages because I just couldn't go on. I've meant to try it again but haven't managed it yet. I like your multi-color diagram!


  11. Nan December 21, 2010 / 11:23 am

    This whole communist thing is fascinating, Thomas. I've been thinking about it a lot from reading Mankell's The Dogs of Riga, and Indridason's The Draining Lake, and hearing an interview with John LeCarré. There's almost a feeling of nostalgia in the air about this time – not the witch hunts but the politics, the spying. It is quite fascinating to me. Even Iggy Pop's Louie,Louie lyric:

    Life after bush & gorbachev
    The wall is down but something is lost

    Isn't life so strange and interesting?


  12. Thomas at My Porch December 22, 2010 / 10:51 am

    Stefanie: Sometimes going back to a book can be good because you begin to remember things and it all seems to read more easily.

    Nan: The interesting thing in TGN is that they are all trying to come to terms with atrocities in Stalin's USSR. For some it is too much to keep them in the party for others a whole lot of denial and justification.


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